Tag Archives: David Robertson

Bespoke Batch Distilling

Your Mission – Create flavours never tasted before in Scotch….

Andy to David – “What would happen if we drew inspiration from the craft brewers and made spirits?”

David – “No, idea, let’s find out!”

Research – we both love Glenmorangie Signet (good research!) – a weird, flavoursome single malt, an alcohol infused tiramisu with espresso coffee notes….wow. Spoke to Dr Bill and we hatched a plan.

Met Simpsons malt and chewed an amazing range of “speciality malts” and could not believe the range of flavours and textures, so we set out to further understand the impact of speciality malt flavour on new make spirit.

The Controls – 100% Golden Promise, 4 yeasts – 2 brewers and 2 cultured.

The Wood – 12 amazing sherry butts from Tevasa Cooperage – the same supplier I used at Macallan back in the 1990s.

The Questions – where should we do this?

One obvious answer – with our mates at the Glasgow Distillery Company (GDC).

Glasgow Distillery - Our Test Lab
Glasgow Distillery – The perfect playground for grownups.

It boasts a perfectly formed small lauter tun, 4 easy to keep clean stainless steel fermenters and 2 magical copper pot stills.  A way to keep each and every mash separate from the next using a range of transit tanks, allowing us to collect low wines, foreshots, spirit and feints from every single mash and fill 1 cask from 1 mash.  Perfect control, perfectly discreet, perfectly simple.

But most importantly, a team of talented, helpful and innovative people – Liam, Dr Jack, Lok and Freddy.

The plan was hatched!

The Team
David, Andy and Dr Jack

The Recipes – what mix should we use?  Can we go 100% speciality malt?  Will it mash okay?  Will it ferment?  Will it distil?  Will it yield any alcohol?

Back to first principles – we worked with Tim McCreath at Simpsons Malt and did some lab scale analysis of various speciality malts recipes.

Lab PSY (predicted spirit yields) ranged from 7.3 litres of pure alcohol per tonne to 397.5.  Wow, what a massive spread!

Distillers today typically return a yield of 410-425 litres of alcohol per tonne….but are they creating flavour?

Costs – of course this needs to be factored in. The speciality malts are much more expensive that traditional distilling malts.  Plus, we were buying in tiny batches.  More cost!

Predicted Spirit Yeild Per TonneWriting up every aspect of recipe and distillation could take forever, so we will share information in general terms.  We bought crushed (already milled) malt from Simpsons and we paid anywhere from £600 to £750 per tonne.  Imagine paying £750 per tonne to yield 7 litres of alcohol!  A pretty expensive exercise….

How about recipe planning?  Again we sought a collaborative approach and organised a planning session (in the pub) with the Glasgow distillers and we each picked a recipe we felt would or could work to deliver relatively easy processing, reasonable yields and maximum flavour.

Malt Samples
A fun night drinking beer and chewing on all kinds of wonderful malt

The plan was hatched and agreed and we asked Simpsons to confirm the PSY by conducting lab scale mashing and analysis.

So, we had a plan and an indication of likely yields – ranging from a low of around 296 l/t to 397 l/t – a huge range in yield and hopefully a huge range in flavour impact.  Would inclusion of speciality malts deliver the flavour impact we craved?  Or would the fermenting and distilling process strip out and lose all the character we sought?

Mash Recipes
Malt recipes – proportion of specialist malt

Processing – we agreed to follow the classic 3 water mash.

Strike 68C to get 64C at the spout to activate enzymes and convert starches/large sugars to fermentable sugars.

Rest briefly, balance to underback, vorlauf (or recycle weak worts) and then pump to FVs and cool worts to 20C.

Add our 4 yeasts – 2 dried culture yeasts (AB Mauri Pinnacle and SAFWhiskyM1) and two fresh brewers yeasts (A top fermenter and a bottom fermenter) with the aim of creating true complexity!

And start the fermentation ASAP.

Sparge on the second water, drain, cool and collect in FV, sparge on the third water and collect in heating tank for next mash (although we didn’t do that for every mash!).

Our Original Gravities (Ogs) ranged from 1047 to 1055 – low by many of today’s standards.

We fermented to achieve maximum conversion of sugars to alcohol and this ranged from 70 to 112 hours before sending to the wash still.

Our final gravities were hugely variable and a correlation (as expected) was found between mashes with no or low levels of speciality malts fermenting well versus high speciality malt inclusions fermenting less well.

Alcohol strengths at many large and efficient malt distilleries today can range from 8 to over 10%.  Our trials yielded a range of 5 to 8%!   Poor for yield efficiency, but hopefully great for flavour!

Flying Scotsman - David's Breakfast
A flying Scotsman for breakfast

Distilling – The alchemy bit!

We typically collected some 5,000 litres of worts per fermentation, fermented for around 4 days and then split the FV in half to give 2 wash still charges.

So, across the course of our 24 wash distillations our initial running strengths varied from the mid 40%s to the mid-60%s.

Our low wines average strengths ranged from 15.7% to 22% – again a huge range, which correlates perfectly with the mashing recipes we have used.  Most distillers today would have very consistent low wines abvs between 22 and 26%.  After all, they are looking for consistency of production and are aiming to make the same low wines and same spirit day in day out.  They are new-make factories.  We are not.  We celebrate diversity in the pursuit of a range of flavours.

By using Glasgow Distillery Company we were able to keep each run discreet and store them in 1T transit tanks.  This allowed us to control, manage and monitor each and every mash, and finally fill all the new make spirit (NMS) in a single butt from a single mash.

Each run (1/2 a mash) typically gave us around 130 Litres of Alcohol (LOA) to 180 LOA per run.  Our flow rates were deliberately very slow and ranged from 1.2 litre per min to 3.2 l/min!  This was collected and used to charge the spirit still.

As this was a discreet experiment, we did not want any recycled liquids from any previous GDC runs.  This meant we needed to ‘build up’ our foreshots and feints until we had a better ‘balanced’ system where our spirit still charges could become more consistent.

We needed to collect and build up our low wines, foreshots and feints to give enough charge liquid for our spirit still processing.  This is where it all started to get critical.  Could we recover the flavour created from our speciality malts?   Distillation is, by its very nature, a simple process to purify the feed stock material.  Collect what you want and throw away what you don’t.  After much time at Diageo and The Macallan I am a fan of small stills and slow distillation and a very narrow spirit cut to concentrate the fruity, estery notes – but would this work for rich, chocolate malty flavours?

Steam On
Steam on!

So, the detail of our spirit distillations – when we went on to spirit and then off spirit to collect the ‘heart of the run’.  This clearly shows the feints build up in our first 2 mashes and 4 spirit runs – 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b – until, we reached a ‘steady and balanced’ state.  The variation in ‘on spirit”’ from mashes 3 to 12 show the impact higher or weaker washes from fermentation can have.

Spirit Cut Points on-off

Focusing now on the average spirit strength we can again see the feints build up required until we got a more steady state and consistent spirit cut average around 72% abv +/- 1%.

Spirit Cut Average ABV

To illustrate the point more fully we have looked at the quantity of both the ‘litres of pure alcohol – or LPA’ – and the ‘bulk spirit’ created from each of the 24 spirit distillations.

LPA and Bulk from each Spirit run

And finally, the rate of distillation.  As discussed previously we wanted a very slow, even, gentle boil to ensure good reflux and a balanced recovery of the purest and most flavoursome characters from these experimental batches.  We believe this to be the slowest spirit cut in the Scotch whisky industry.

Spirit Cut Bulk Flow Rates L per Min

And so to wood.  What wood?  Well, given my experience and the richness of our expected new make spirit we opted for first fill Spanish oak ex Sherry butts from Tevasa cooperage, seasoned with wines from Gonzalez Byass in Jerez de la Frontera.

A full load of over 50 mighty 500 litres butts were sourced, delivered to Glasgow and nosed, with RW101 picking 12 for our bespoke distilling project.

We were looking for select casks that offered up aromas of rich dried fruits, spicy tannins (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger), orange zest and toffee sweetness.

Flavours and Aromas

But back to the spirit, the essence of what we were after.  What was it like?

Tasting Notes

Clearly we have recovered a range of amazing characters in our spirit.  We have the classic fruity notes as would be expected from 100% distilling malt – fruits, apples, pears, maltiness and nutty.

But even more exciting we have captured notes of chocolate, biscuity, toffee, nutty, golden syrup, roasted coffee, honey.

So, what happens next?  We wait….and wait.  And draw samples every 6 months to assess progress.  Will we lose the speciality malt characters we have worked so hard to preserve?  Will the wood dominate and hide those flavours?  Will there be a symbiotic relationship and the wood and chocolatey notes support and enhance each other?  Will things change to create new flavours?  Will we lose fruit and gain spice?  Will we create the world’s first ‘chocolate orange’ single malt?  Only time will tell!  We will report back soon…..


David & Andy

Chocolate Orange

Now and Then – Sherry Bombs.

The Past, the Present and the Future.

Slightly back to front, I’m going to start with the results before we get into some more detail. We recently blindly assessed some of the worlds largest and most influential single malt brands… Can their current entry level bottles keep up with discontinued past versions?



The second ‘Now and Then’ was once again hosted by the whisky guru and raconteur Mr Charlie MacLean. For those unfamiliar with the Now and Then club, we meet now and then, and we compare/contrast whisky from now and then.


Bacon sarnies, coffee and great conversations kicked us off in high spirits and we were delighted to welcome Gavin Smith to his first session – The full quintet was together for the first time.


IMG_6065Sherry bomb sampling of 6 highly respected distilleries was the tough ask of the day.

We chose the above distilleries for their strong sherry bias, past and/or present. All are strong brands with a pedigree of unquestionable quality…. But that was then and this is now!

IMG_6064Before some in-depth analysis of the scores we pose the hypothesis – OLDER BOTTLINGS ARE BETTER!

Some personal musings and opinions close to my heart as to why this hypothesis might be true –

AGE: Is the average age of whisky in the old bottles higher than the contemporary bottlings?  Stock management is tricky when demand is outstripping supply. In days of yore (the 1970s, 80s and 90s) there was maybe a little less pressure on stocks and a master distiller or whisky maker could be a bit more flexible with the casks he/she selected for vatting, marrying and bottling.

I can clearly recall at Macallan we had large stocks of whisky from 1979 and 1980 which allowed our 10 and 12 year old whiskies, in the early to mid-1990s, to have the inclusion of older liquid. In percentage terms the amount of older whisky added was small but it none the less increased maturity, quality and richness.  It allowed me to balance out any younger, rougher, less mature stock even though that whisky was technically of the right age.

When Macallan was acquired by Highland Distillers in summer 1996 we began to look at the average age of all Macallan bottlings and compare them with Highland Park…..and guess what we found! The HP 12 was an average age of 16.7 years and Macallan 12 was around 12.5 to 13 years of age. No wonder HP 12 was winning so many awards back then. The folks at HP had it easy. I would have loved to make the Macallan 12 with spirit of an average (so there was some really old stuff going in!) age of 16.7 years old!

WOOD: More sherry influence in the old bottles and less in new releases? Have the casks changed? Has the process of “designing” the wood and setting in place acorn to cask supply chains reduced the quality of the wood? Is the wine/sherry seasoning delivering what is required? If I were heading up some of these large brand owning companies today I would worry much less about distillery efficiencies of mashing, fermentation and distillation (which has been done to death over recent decades and continues to lead to operational efficiency creep and spirit standardisation) and focus more, much more, on the “right first time” wood supply efficiency and effectiveness.

It seems to me to be crazy that production managers are held to account for minor efficiency enhancements but the same is not done to those employees sourcing the wood.  Research continues to suggest that the wood can contribute around 80 % of a mature whiskies character – I bet not even 8% of a companies operations research budget goes in to wood supply chain improvements!

The key here is the wood extractive potential and for European oak sherry casks you need lots of tannin potential to drive spices in to the spirit, sherry to add dried fruit flavours and then time and oxidation to shape, transform and mellow the whisky and add fragrance, orange and oak notes.

Of course, if we did an American white oak tasting we would be looking for vanillin and lactone extractives – caramel, toffee, crème brule, vanilla, fresh fruits and lemon citrus notes.

PROCESS: Barley varieties, slower malting, gentler mashing, more complex fermentation, direct fired stills and different cut points? All factors which to a greater or lesser degree change a new-make’s character. We know this but believe age and wood will have far more of a contributory influence.

BOTTLE AGEING: How does the spirit change in the glass over time? Chemically speaking, it must. Does significant bottle ageing change a spirit for the better, softening, rounding out and harmonising flavours? We believe it does.

All simple hypotheses (and opinion); none of which would be easy to prove one way or the other.

But what did the results say?

As usual we scored each whisky out of 10, meaning each whisky could achieve a maximum 50 points. We (Charles MacLean, Darren Leitch, Gavin Smith, Andy Simpson and I (David Robertson)) nosed and tasted the whiskies blind, in clear rather than blue glass and compared old v new for the following major brands –


Now (purchased July 2015)                     Then (1970s, 1980s & 1990s bottlings)

The Macallan Gold                                      The Macallan 10 yo, 1990s

Balvenie 12 yo Double Wood                      Balvenie 10 yo Founders Reserve 1990s

Glendronach 12 yo                                      Glendronach 12 yo 1980s

Glenfarclas 15 yo                                        Glenfarclas 15 yo 1970s

Highland Park 12 yo                                    Highland Park 12 yo 1980s

Aberlour 10 yo                                             Aberlour 8 yo 1970

As with our first session all about old vs new blends, this isn’t going to be a traditional write up of tasting notes, it’s going to be a little more focussed on the stats.

Single Malts are en-vogue.  Auctions continue to gather pace and achieved prices remain very bullish. So, time to see what all the fuss is about with old, sherry cask matured whiskies from some of the most sought after distillers.

The Final Scores.


As seen earlier but worthy of comment –

The top 3 whiskies were Macallan 10 (old), Balvenie 10 (old) and Glendronach 12 (new).  So what can we learn from this?  Many of our clients and ‘the noise in the pipes’ we hear, suggests Macallan is losing its sherry style and that Glendronach is the new sherry bomb on the block. Our results certaintly agree with that. Macallan old greatly outscores Macallan new 38 points to 21.  Glendronach new outscores its own old by 33 to 30 and is the only instance where the new whisky was rated more highly that its older twin – well done Billy Walker and team for the continued focus on high quality sherry wood!

Turning to Balvenie we see old scored 35 to new of 31 – both delicious whiskies.  Interestingly Balvenie’s combined old and new scores were the highest at 66 points, just shading Glendronach’s total at 63.


Apart from Glendronach, the panel preferred the older variants from the other 5 distillers.   Is this proof that older bottlings are better than their younger twins of today…we say yes, but it depends on the brand.

Brand Analysis – Variance in Scores: New to Old


Macallan shows the greatest difference in score followed by Glenfarclas and then Highland Park.  Aberlour and Balvenie are pretty close with the old variants being slightly preferred overall by the panel.   Glendronach bucks the trend, with the new variant outscoring the old variant by 3 points.

Positives & Negatives – We had to at least do some tasting notes!

Top 3 whiskies

Macallan Old 38 pts – rich, dried fruits, spices, orange

Balvenie Old 35 pts –  subtly sweet, honey, fruits, vanilla

Glendronach New 33 pts – fruity, apple, pears, malted barley

Bottom 3 whiskies

Glenfarclas New 15 pts – sweet and sour, caramel, toffee, odd

Macallan New 21 pts – sweet, vanilla, tropical fruit, waxy, slightly sour

Highland Park New 25 pts – sweet, herbal, floral, light smoke

Overall Brand Scores.

When both old and new are combined we get a view of brand quality.   It was thought that Glenfarclas with its 15 yo entry would score highest and have the advantage of age.  That was not the case, the new 15 yo GF was the lowest scoring whisky with only 15 points – an average per taster of 3 points!  WOW, this is serious.  Especially as The Whisky Exchange has this bottling as one of its favourites. We can only assume batch variation is the culprit here.

TWE Glenfarclas 15

Has the mighty independent force of will from the Grant family maybe not got as many brilliant sherry casks as had been thought!

Highland Park was second last with a total of 59 points, only 2 behind Macallan – are Edrington struggling to keep pace with demand and is quality of wood purchase and thus bottlings suffering?  Do they need to get Billy Walker to source their sherry casks?

The other three distillers all scored in excess of 60 points.

Personal Scores – THE HIGHS AND LOWS


Gavin was the most generous awarding a total of 83 marks and was the most easy to please and found 5 whiskies worthy of 8 points, averaging 6.92 points per sample.

Charlie had the nose that seemed least excited and only awarded 59 points across all the samples, averaging 4.92 points per whisky with a spread of 8 to 2 points.

Darren, Andy and I awarded 64, 75 and 70 points respectively and were close to the average.

The Favourites.

So, which whiskies did each panel member want to take home!

Gav loved Old Mac, Old Glendronach, New Glendronach, Balvenie New and Aberlour Old – scoring them all 8/10.

Darren was a bit more discriminating, awarding 8/10 just once and lusted after the new Glendronach.

Charlie, tough (as old boots) and hard to impress, liked the old Balvenie and gifted it 8/10.

Andy with a 9/10 demanded the old Aberlour.

I thought 2 whiskies worthy of the magic full marks of 10 – Macallan old and Balvenie old – maybe my nose can still recognise that delicious old sherry style after all and I fondly recall working as a car park attendant at Glenfiddich/Balvenie in summer 1986 and the access I got to the old founders reserve.

The not-so-goods.

The lowest scores were given by Gav, Darren, Charlie and Andy to the new Glenfarclas 15 with 5, 2, 2 and 2 points respectively.

I was the outlier, scoring the current Glenfarclas 4/10 but I found the old Glendronach a little less pleasing and scored it 3/10.

Apart from Glendronach the findings here echo what we saw in our blends assessment.

Maybe Billy Walker should be made COO for Sherry Wood supplies to the industry – he seems to be getting it right more than some of the much, much bigger guys!

So what?  Where can you go to get these great old variants?  Auctions is one key place and we have found that prices for these old bottlings range from £60 to £120.   Interestingly, the new variants range in price from £25 to £45. The Aberlour 10 year old looks to be best bang-for-buck and is frequently discounted to around £20 per bottle.

Next time we’re together we move onto the Islands. I can bat the ball back to Andy and set him the challenge of an Islay Now and Then.  And after that, we will look to do some ex bourbon matured malts – with some of The Glens – Morangie, Livet, Fiddich, Grant, Rothes.

The difference between old and new bottlings of the blends was significantly more heavily weighted towards the older variant. With malts, it seems the scores are somewhat closer. The new blends achieved just 58% of the score of the old versions where the new malts achieved 78%… the quality of blends looks to have slipped more than malts… or do blends continue to ‘marry’ in the bottle far more than malts?

As the ex-Master Distiller from the (past?) king of sherry, The Macallan, it has been a fascinating tasting and report to compile! Please email in your comments and questions.  We’d love to hear your thoughts.



Now and Then – Blends of old and their Contemporary Counterparts.


The Past and The Present – A crystal ball for the future?

Bacon sandwiches and a good coffee were just the aperitif for a hard-days drinking, or rather sampling. Sampling of eight old blends alongside their current siblings. Siblings is a good analogy; family similarities could be seen… but the differences were, in some cases, vast.

The ‘Now & Then’ had their inaugural get together in Edinburgh.

Why the ‘Now & Then’?

We meet now & then, every three months or so and we compare/contrast whisky from now and then.

Scoring each whisky out of 10, being one man down (Gavin D. Smith couldn’t make it) meant each whisky could achieve a maximum 40 points. We (Charles MacLean, Darren Leitch, David Robertson and I (Andy Simpson)) nosed and tasted the whiskies blind each time by three of the four of us (one of us prepared the samples for two old and two new bottles), in clear rather than blue glass and compared old v new for the following major brands –

Now (purchased March 2015)   Then (mid – Late 1970’s bottles)

Ballantines Finest                         Ballantines Finest

Black Bottle                                   Black Bottle

Chivas 12                                       Chivas 12

Grants Family reserve                 Grants Stand Fast

Johnnie Walker Red Label           Johnnie Walker Red Label

Teachers Highland Cream           Teachers Highland Cream

White Horse Fine Old                   White Horse Fine Old

Whyte & MacKay Special             Whyte & Mackay Special

Charles getting into his 1970 Johnnie Walker Red Label
Charles getting into his 1970’s bottled Johnnie Walker Red Label
Darren being well dressed and perfectly groomed
Darren being well dressed and perfectly groomed
David doing what he does best
David doing what he does best.
Andy clearly disliking something. Guess what?
Andy clearly disliking something. Guess what?

This isn’t going to be a traditional write up of tasting notes, it’s going to be a little more focussed on the stats. While we took detailed notes, RW101’s modus operandi is to use data to drive our insight and intelligence.  The numbers don’t lie so we’re more or less going to stick with them.

Blends are where it all started for Scotch whisky as a ‘proper’ industry so blends were where we started. The biggest whisky companies in the world are primarily blenders and the biggest selling Scotch whiskies (by millions of cases) in the world are blends. Love them or loathe them, without blends we would be without Scotch as we know it today. Worthy of note; all but one of these bottles bore no age statement in both old and new guise. Chivas 12 year old was the only whisky with an age statement. Clearly the expectation for malts is very different and we’ll certainly cover that old chestnut another time.

The Final Scores

Each old whisky was carefully chosen to be the closest ‘dead’ relative of its current bottle so we could accurately compare apples with apples.  Having old and new for exactly the same variant meant we could also review product changes, ‘flavour-drift’ (as Charles so eloquently says) or, in some cases, product zig zag!

Cutting to the chase for those who want to know the results, here are the final scores out of a maximum of 40 points –

a. Final Results
Ranked in order, the final scores for all sixteen bottles

The most striking thing is, without exception, the top eight positions are occupied by the older bottles – Not one of the modern-day variants made it into the top 50%. There’s even a notable drop from the lowest scoring old whisky (Ballantines) to the highest scoring new whisky (Chivas 12). Ballantines also displayed the most consistent profile between old and new; there were very clear similarities.

What we thought of the top two and the bottom two.

Ranked 1 out of 16: Chivas 12 (old) was described as – Sweet, Complex and interesting with good texture, lightly woody and a hint of smoke.

Ranked 2 out of 16: Johnnie Walker Red Label (old) – Rich, parsnips, artichoke (waxy), tinned tomatoes, hessian, light sweetness then dry, old fashioned.

Ranked 15 out of 16: Grants Family Reserve (new) was described as – Thin, young, grainy, chemical and bitter.

Ranked 16 out of 16: Whyte & MacKay Special (new) was described as – Sweet and mild. Grainy (acetone), hot – a surprise. Fades to nothing.

Overall Brand Scores.

When both old and new scores are combined, the overall best scoring brand is Chivas, taking 51 points out of a maximum 80 and just four points ahead of second place Johnnie Walker Red Label. Third place went to Grants who were 1.5 points behind Johnnie Walker. The lowest overall brand score was Whyte and MacKay who achieved 31 points, largely down to the very low score achieved by the modern day bottling.

b. Brands Ranked
All eight brands ranked in order of scores


Highest Personal Scores.

Subjective? Yes.

A matter of personal taste? It has to be.

…But the broad similarity in preference is more than a coincidence. There are clear winners.

Joint high scores are recorded where someone ranked two or more whiskies as their top score.

Old Bottles.

The Average of the personal high-scores for the old bottles was 8.3 out of 10.

The old bottles had some very clear winners. The only perfect 10 was awarded to Johnnie Walker Red Label by David, a nose more used to malt than blend…he obviously loved something in this old JWR.

Personal high scores for the old bottles
Personal high scores for the old bottles

Chivas 12 took the day with three top scores, closely followed by Johnnie Red with two top scores. Grants Stand Fast took a respectable third place.

Ranked 3 out of 16: Grants Stand Fast (old) was described as – Rich, fruity, very light cereal (rice), light scorched cloth. Drying towards the end; some spice in the finish

Almost everyone had the same top three. The most lavish in awarding his points was David, the hardest nose to please was Charles.

The most consistently scored old bottle (the bottle with the least variation of scores) was Whyte & MacKay. It scored a consistent six other than myself, and I scored it five. The most divisive old bottle was Ballantines finest where Charles scored it three and Darren scored it eight (David scored five and I scored six).

New Bottles.

The average of the personal high-scores for the contemporary bottles was 6.25.

Black Bottle and Teachers took the joint highest personal scores and were the only current bottles to score 7 or more. One of the largest polarities in score was my White Horse score of 5, David scored it just 1 with notes saying it was exceptionally bitter.

Personal high scores for the new bottles
Personal high scores for the new bottles

Ranked 10 out of 16: Teachers (new) was described as – rice pudding, rubber, dried fruits/Xmas cake mix – European oak. Rich and sweet taste, hint of coal smoke.

Ranked 13 out of 16: Black Bottle (new) was described as – light, more acetone, meaty, roast beef crisps, salt.

Lowest Personal Scores.

Old Bottles.

The average for the lowest scoring old bottles was 4.60.

With both David and Charles giving it their lowest score, Ballantines Finest was the worst performer of the old bottles.

Personal low scores for the old bottles
Personal low scores for the old bottles

Ranked 8 out of 16: Ballantines Finest (old) was described as – Somewhat closed. Carpet, flour paste; pleasant, some apple tart. Ashy and dusty.

Ranked 7 out of 16: Whyte & MacKay Special (old) was described as – Very mild nose, some face cream. Fresh, fruity, slightly musty, flour paste, somewhat artificial.

New Bottles

The average for the lowest personal score for the new bottles was 2.30.

Whyte & MacKay received the lowest score from all of us. In some cases it was a joint low score but the commonality was striking. Was there an element of significant batch variation with the Whyte & Mackay? Whatever it was, it was unilaterally scored the lowest.

Personal low scores for the new bottles
Personal low scores for the new bottles

Ranked 14 out of 16: Johnnie Walker Red Label (new) was described as – Deep colour. Deep acetone; colour suggests more. Thin. Grain whisky.

Summary and Conclusions.

Which nose was hardest to please and who was most generous with their points?

Andy awarded a total of 76 points.

Charles awarded a total of 76.5 points.

David awarded a total of 84 points.

Darren awarded a total of 99 points.

In total, 335.5 points were awarded from a maximum of 640 (both old and new combined). The split of total points is below –

Total available points and total points achieved by both new and old
Total available points and total points achieved by both new and old

The old bottles took 66% of their total possible points and the new bottles took just 39%. The old bottles in effect scored 70% higher than their modern day contemporary releases.

I’ve purposely referred to scores and numbers here rather than better or worse. That said, it appears the old variants are simply ‘better’ than the new ones in all cases. We came up with some musings as to why that might be –

1 – Age – Is the average age of whisky in the old bottles higher (the old age debate comes up again)? Both the malt and the grain components?

2 – Recipe – Higher malt content?

3 – Wood – More sherry influence in the old bottles and less ex BB from USA?

4 – Process – Barley varieties, slower malting, gentler mashing, more complex fermentation, direct fired stills and different cut points?

5 – Bottle ageing – How does the spirit change in the glass over time (to some degree, chemically it must), softening, rounding out and harmonising flavours?

All simple hypotheses and none would be easy to prove one way or the other. That said there really is no escaping the significant difference between the big-brand blends of now and then.

So what?  Where can you go to get these great old blends?  Auctions maybe, private collections possibly… And what of the future? Will flavour-drift continue? I shall look forward to doing this again in ten years.

The next time we’re together we move onto malts. David’s task, which he’s chosen to accept, is sherry-bombs of now and then. As the ex-Master Distiller from the (past?) king of sherry, The Macallan, it seems a fitting challenge.

Rare Whisky and Sediment.

What is the sediment, haze & precipitate material in very old, sherry matured whiskies and is it bad for you?


David – With very old whisky oxalic acid has been leached out of the casks over an extended time period and this is particularly true when Spanish Oak Sherry casks are used and may thus cause a white crystalline precipitate to occur.

The science is well understood and can be explained that during the maturation period the oxalate ion precipitates out with calcium to form calcium oxalate (crystal deposits).   With the addition of any calcium ions during addition of reduction water (to reduce the whisky ABV from natural cask strength to bottle strength) and any filtration and any other increase in pH that can occur during finishing and bottling it can take up to a year for the calcium oxalate to precipitate.

The complex nature of calcium oxalate instability that leads to precipitation is dependent on the temperature and alcohol concentration of the whisky.  Since stable environmental conditions may only occur once the whisky is bottled and released commercially it can be hard to predict how these products will behave.  And indeed, it may take months, if not years, for the crystal agglomerations to reach a size to be seen by the naked human eye.

Oxal Img 2

The industry is well aware that many very old, sherry matured in origin single malts, can throw a crystalline precipitate of calcium oxalate.  Many examples of this exist with Macallan Anniversary 25 years old, Macallan 30 years old, Dalmore 40 year olds, G&M vintage whiskies from the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s etc.  It’s a very common occurrence and provides proof of the natural sherry matured, gently filtered long aged nature of the resulting product.

Customers must realise that we are dealing with a traditional product, made from natural ingredients, from which the alcohol produced is distilled and then filled to oak casks without any intervention that would detract from the final product quality.

Aged Scotch whisky may therefore be compared with fine port and some of France’s world famous clarets where, for example, significant precipitation occurs.  Whisky may be decanted by the end user as one would a fine port or wine.

Ingestion of the calcium oxalate crystals would not pose any toxicity problems as calcium oxalate is found in many foods and drinks in far higher concentrations typically 1-10 mg/litre for whisky and 1400 mg/litre in chocolate and 330 mg/l in tea.

Andy – So that’s the why and how done; but does this sediment serve any other use?

It actually does.

With older bottles of heavily sherried whisky I always look for sediment to be present. While not definitive, as we’re dealing with many variables around the liquid and also how the bottle’s been stored, the presence of sediment is a good indication that the whisky is genuine…. Or at least it’s pretty old sherried stuff.

When I’m appraising a collection of older bottles, if I don’t see the ‘sludge-of-certainty’ it rings alarm bells and at least warrants digging a bit more into the provenance of the bottle.

Oxal Img 3

Macallan Gran Reserva – Its Creation and Collectability

The 1979 18 year old Macallan Gran Reserva – The Birth and Growth of an Iconic Whisky.

David talks through the creation of the Macallan Gran Reserva then Andy looks at its collectors credentials.

DAVID – It was summer of 1996 and Macallan was under new management. As a result of the take-over by Highland Distillers the challenge we were presented with was to develop a heart-n-mind capturing new release for the global markets. Having had experience and a good understanding of the stocks since joining Macallan in 1994, I knew that 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983 were halcyon years.  After conducting an extensive cask sampling and assessment programme we landed on creating a vintage first fill Spanish oak release – like the usual Macallan … but on steroids!  Gran Reserva was 100% first fill whereas our usual 18 year old was a mix of first and second fill.

Macallan Gran Reserva

To get the balance we wanted, we used casks which had previously contained a broad range of different sherries (dry oloroso, sweet oloroso, amontillados).  We also did some wood analysis at the time and discovered that Eugenol, a clove like tannin, was a key marker for ‘high tannin potential’ oak and was correlated with the deep rich red colour, aromatic spices and syrupy textures/mouth feel we wanted.

From memory, for the first release – a 1979 18 year old –  We selected around 50 first fill sherry butts and released somewhere in the region of 3,000 (12 bottle equivalent) cases – mixed between 75 cl and 70 cl.

Personally I loved the whisky, it was my first real ‘white space’ creation so I bought 8 cases – In staff sales it was selling for around £45 per bottle and was launched with a suggested retail price point of £65. Of these, I only have a few bottles left and they will now be saved for very special occasions.

My friends and family were gifted many bottles in the late 1990s and I recall consuming a couple with my father at the ghillies cottage at Macallan when we watched Hearts thrash Rangers two – one in the Scottish cup. We got off to a flying start as Cameron scored a penalty after the first two minutes. That marked the opening of the first bottle and I very quickly had one less in my collection. Poor Rothes was the town we chose to celebrate in after the win!

Not only was the Gran Reserva one of my favourite all time whiskies, I was also forcibly made to travel the world launching the Gran Reserva 1979 to a global audience. Imagine the utter hardship as I had to endure drinking this stuff morning, noon, afternoon and night as we travelled throughout USA, Canada, Europe and Asia showcasing it to my fellow whisky fans. A complete nightmare of a time in my life, as I’m sure you’ll agree!!!

Over the years I think I’ve drunk maybe 60 or so bottles but my favourite memory was developing a perfect end to a perfect meal in perfect company. Our dark chocolate mousse dessert was accompanied by a ‘dessert’ dram as well as a drinking dram. The dessert dram was poured over the mousse before we ate it… just delicious. It’s one of those small things but it became a real standout moment for me.

As would be expected, and for so many reasons, the 1979 Gran Reserva still sits in my top 10 whiskies. Others include the Caol Ila Managers Dram, Macallan 30 yo Blue Box, Brora 30, Dalmore 1973 Cab Sauvignon.

Sadly but inevitably, all good things have to come to an end. The Gran Reserva was discontinued once we ran out of stock from that first and only 1979 vintage.  Given it was such a success we were asked to repeat the feat and subsequently released the 1980, 1981 and 1982 vintages. I obviously enjoyed these other vintages but the 1979 just edges it for me. Being the first release it’s also hugely sought after – a bit like Balvenie Tun 1401 batch one.

In terms of what it’s like? While I haven’t had a tot of this for a wee while, I know the liquid intimately. My lasting memory is one of rich dried fruits, raisins, dates and prunes to the fore. The fruits are set against an intense background of tannic spice majoring on cloves, cinnamon, ginger and some cracked black pepper. This is then balanced with dark chocolate, citrus orange peel and sweet hints of red fruits and vanillin.

Now where are my last few bottles!?…..

Macallan Gran Reserva Box

ANDY – 1970’s distillate, first release, heavily sherried and from The Macallan… Let’s be fair, this was never destined to be left languishing on shelves gathering eons of dust like a Mannochmore Managers Choice. With a relatively small number of bottles released, of those 36,000ish bottles there will now be a tiny fraction left (Snow Phoenix had just over 60,000 bottles released)….. My esteemed colleague gave it a good go to remove as much as he could from the market, so many more will have done so too.

It’s scant surprise this bottle’s seen massive demand and steep price increases over the past few years. Its appearance at auction in comparison to the market in general is declining. Broad-based supply (the number of ALL collectable bottles hitting the UK auction market) is increasing at around 50% per year and has done for the last 5 years. The number of Gran Reserva 1979’s seeing the market is in decline, relatively speaking. In 2011 there were 19 sold at auction, 2012 saw 25, 2013 saw 33 and so far this year we’ve seen 25 (so we’re on track for 33 again this year). If general market increase dynamics are applied to this release then we should have seen – 40 in 2012, 60 in 2013 and around 90 bottles already in 2014…. Similar to, but not as severe as Black Bowmore – Bottled stocks are declining.

Values have increased rapidly in positive correlation to diminishing open market supply. The index below shows the growth in value of the 1979 vintage compared to all Gran Reserva vintages from the end of 2008 to September this year (the ‘All Gran Reserva’ index still includes the 1979 too).

Gran Reserva Index

While the 1979 is somewhat spikey, it’s still outpaced the general growth of all Gran Reserva’s by over 100%.

Current values place the 1979 at around £800 to £1,000 at auction with a 12 month low of £500 in February this year and a 12 month high of £1,300 in June this year. The 12 month average is £817. Good growth when you look at the 2008 12 month average which was £220. Taken in comparison to the standard 1979 18 year old Macallan it seems like ‘Macallan on Steroids’ has a significant lead. The current 12 month average of the standard 1979 18 year old is £401, leaving the Gran Reserva at more than double the standard bottles performance.

While it’s impossible to forecast forward what will happen to the value of anything, let alone just one bottle variant of Scotch; when you look at the diminishing supply relative to the rest of the market coupled with the exceptional quality of the liquid, The Macallan Gran Reserva looks like it still has legs.

This is undoubtedly one of the iconic collectibles; the only question is how far can it go?